placing the real bet:
which of us will be the first to go…
From “Derby,” Joy Priest
Once a City Said: A Louisville Poets Anthology is a sweeping rebuke of a city turned talking point in which more than three dozen poets seek to disrupt outside perceptions of Louisville. Editor Joy Priest carefully curates a collection with the explicit intent of taking “the city’s narrative out of the mouths of politicians, news anchors, and police chiefs…” Priest taps into the function of poetry as counterpublic in response to national attention in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s murder. This anthology resists nostalgia, but also the flattened perspective of Louisville as a site of uninterrupted trauma. The poets within frequently foreground joy without losing sight of resistance, celebrate life without negating the city’s complicity in state-sponsored violence.
The book is organized into four sections: Traditions & Icons, Place & Protest, Spirit & Song, Portrait & Memory. Before reading a single poem, readers are encouraged to consider duality and coexistence, the ability for a space and a people to be more than one thing. These section titles mirror the city itself, drawing (in)visible borders between poems of seemingly disparate topics in a structural commentary on the self-segregation still evident in Louisville. However, many poets have poems in at least two sections of the anthology, challenging this arbitrary segregation and asserting a complexity that resists finite separations.
Traditions & Icons features a suite of poems which seek to interrogate some of the most pervasive cultural signifiers in Louisville, including Colonel Sanders and the Kentucky Derby. Erin Keane takes aim at tourism and the naivete of outsiders who come with hopes of seeing “a marble bucket that spins, slowly,/to the tune of ‘My Old Kentucky Home’” at the site of Colonel Sanders’ grave before admitting, “we conjured this/tinkling fancy.” Rheonna Nicole laments, “my city still enjoys the tedious taste of Kentucky Fried/segregation” before wondering, “how many people I have to serve before I get a decent meal” on account of the Kentucky Derby. Gleena Meeks challenges representations of poverty and struggle as one dimensional trauma in “Ode to South Louisville,” a poem which balances nostalgia and memory with a critique of wealth distribution and exploitation.
The second section, Place & Protest, opens with a powerful rebuke of “trauma dumping” as Mackenzie Berry, in “In Which an Entrepreneur is the Mayor, recalls, “Once a poet looked to me and said,/I wish my mother had died, so that I would have something to write about,/and I have never been able to turn from it.” Berry then chastises Louisville’s superficial commitment to its people, writing, “Once a city said,/How do we operationalize compassion? before firing 20 bullets into a couple’s bed.” In the following poem, “We Were Here,” Hannah L. Drake presents a sprawling invocation of women of color who dedicated their lives to feminism and civil rights. As a whole, this section works to find harmony in the discordant recognition of often safe, joyful spaces and the continual need to protest the injustices that proliferate those spaces.
Spirit & Song, the third section, stresses the many ways that the people of Louisville express and maintain faith, often through music and song. Anna Leigh Knowles celebrates the familiar sounds of home: “Even as the chimes toss, even as they heave,/the screen door becomes an ache in the hinge/of the jaw; silhouettes flit one place or another.” Portrait & Memory, the final section, features a series of poets working to situate themselves in the larger history of a city they both love and fear. The first poem in the section, “Frail,” is a brief but cutting memory which begins with the proclamation, “A cigarette left unattended/still burns.” Sunshine Meyers closes the poem with the stark admission, “I think I have been/that cigarette before,” contextualizing and personalizing sometimes abstract discussions of generational trauma and setting the tone for the entire section.
At its core, Once a City Said is a deliberate act of resistance, an insistence that outsiders make space for the lived experiences of those who call Louisville home, a vital reminder of the power inherent in refusing to relinquish our collective voices despite all efforts to silence us.